In the hours before the curtain rises on Richmond Ballet's annual and much-lauded presentation of "The Nutcracker," the largest dressing room in the basement of the historic Carpenter Theatre is filled with dancers practicing another art: stage makeup.
"It's part of the job," says company dancer Maggie Small, "just like we have to know [how to do] tendus and pliés, we have to know how to present ourselves on stage."
One of Small's roles in this year's "Nutcracker" is Butterfly. She prefers a refined interpretation, she says, joking, "I butterfly from the inside."
She briskly applies a basic face with a lined eye, red mouth and the dancer's universal essential-false eyelashes. "Makeup isn't the show," she says. "I've worked on my artistry, I've worked on my dancing and I don't want it to take away from it."
In her eight years as a company dancer and 10 years dancing "The Nutcracker," she's experimented with flashier make up but keeps it simple now. "Sometimes when you have a lot of stuff on your face it gets you revved up," she says, "but then I also feel like I have gemstones glued to my face. It makes me more aware of external things."
Gluing gemstones to her face — lots of them — is exactly what Lauren Fagone does for her role as Snake. "The truth is, no one has reined me in yet," she says. "Each year I add a little more." A company dancer for Richmond Ballet for 11 years, Fagone says "The Nutcracker" is all about creating magic. "I think this is a great way to play into that and add my own little trademark into the mix," she says. "So when I retire and will no longer get to be the Snake, people will remember Fagone, who used to put all the jewels on her face."
Elena Bello, in her first year in the professional company, draws enormous eyelashes and round red cheeks on her face for the part of the doll Columbine. Her look, she says, is "kind of just passed on from previous dancers. Over the years it can be more dramatic or more subtle depending on the dancer." Her makeup challenge comes from managing herself in the tight confines of the doll box that she must fold herself into. "Once I popped out with giant red lipstick marks on my tights."
An entirely different set of challenges faces Richmond Ballet trainee Emily Strickland in the role of Mother Ginger, a character she describes as "a large bunny mom with a lot of little bunny children that run out from under her skirt." The bunnies are real children, and the enormous skirt is affixed to Strickland with a harness. She applies loads of electric blue eye shadow to her lids and draws on a mole and candy pink lips. "She still has time to be glamorous," Strickland says of Mother Ginger, "even though she's a working mom of 12 and has a lot on her plate."
In the show she wears an eight-pound, broad-brimmed hat and sits on another dancer's shoulders. "He's responsible for everyone at one point," she says — "me with the harness and hat and for all the bunny kids staying under the dress. He can't see anything but the ground."
Thomas Garrett, in his ninth season as a company dancer with the Richmond Ballet, has been the "Mother Ginger bottom," as he calls it. "It's pretty intense underneath there," he says. This year, he is Dr. Drosselmeyer, the magical toymaker. The role calls for an older man, so Garrett draws lines in his face by scrunching it up and tracing and highlighting the paths of wrinkles yet to come.
"I feel like the eyes make what kind of Drosselmeyer you're going to be," Garrett says. "I prefer an elegant Drosselmeyer over a creepy one. I don't want the kids to be afraid of me." The process takes about 45 minutes. "As a kid, I watched all the older guys do their character's makeup when I was in dance school." On the table in front of Garrett is greasepaint, passed on to him by ballet master Malcolm Burn. It's no longer manufactured and comes in a paper tube that Garrett carefully has squeezed into more portable compacts.
Many of the dancers have talismans or rituals inherited from other dancers along with makeup techniques. "You have no idea how superstitious dancers can be," Small says. She always holds her eye pencil up to a light bulb to warm it before using it. "I don't know if it actually works," she says. "It's another thing I was told when I was younger."
"Most of ballet is that way," Fagone says. "Ballets are passed down by generations of dancers who either danced the role or on whom the role was created. We have videos and look at pictures of costumes but it means so much more and is so much more valuable when it comes from someone who has had the experience or learned all the tricks of the trade." S
"The Nutcracker" runs through Dec. 23. Tickets are available at the Richmond Ballet box office, by phone at 800-514-3849 or online at eTix.com.